Hot on Ramen: Uncover the History of One of Our Favorite Dishes
By Benjamin Laun
If you grew up in the U.S. like me, I'm willing to bet a hefty sum that your first exposure to ramen came via Nissin or Maruchan. Those ubiquitous sleeved or cupped tangles of curly dry noodles turn into a salt-rich “soup” when mixed with hot water and a mysterious packet of flavoring powder, unadorned, unemotional, and unexciting. Which probably explains why I get condescending or confused looks when I say ramen is my favorite food. But I encourage you to first look into the history of ramen, a story as long, complicated, and full of texture as the dish itself.
Despite its red-carpet status as one of Japan's most famous exported contributions to food culture, ramen is actually neither particularly old nor particularly Japanese. Ramen itself is a loanword from the Chinese “lamian,” and though some sources claim that the recipe came over with a Chinese scholar in the 1600's, the dish in its current, recognizable form didn't quite exist until about 1910. Restaurants and food stalls owned by Chinese immigrants and home-cooking specialists served their popular gyoza dumplings alongside what was then known as a Chinese version of soba noodles with a few toppings and a broth flavored with pork bones and salt. This early incarnation shares with its brethren the core elements that seem to have guided ramen development through the last century — cheap, quick, and filling. Ramen's cross-cultural appeal was evident even from its inception, as students slurped to save money, blue-collar workers put down hearty comfort on a quick lunch break, and soldiers and political radicals found both common ground and enmity over a shared passion for foreign food. Ramen’s popularity takeoff in the 1930's and 40's came alongside Japan's military conquest of China. Chinese pushcart noodle-hawkers faced jail time during food shortages and restaurant bans as they picked up black market wheat flour and sold their invention — Japan's new national food — in an act of both peacekeeping and rebellion. It became an entrenched part of the national food culture to bond over hot bowls of noodle soup, even as tension grew between the two nations.
In the aftermath of World War II, trade allowed American wheat flour to make its way into Japan in mass quantities, and ramen underwent an unprecedented boom. (I’d argue that we're still in it, and it's only just now properly making its way to cuisine-curious corners of the globe like Pittsburgh.) The varieties of flavorings and toppings put into a bowl became hot grounds for experimentation, and soon, every region of Japan had its own specialty variety. In 1958, Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder of Nissin Foods, invent preserved, flash-fried instant noodles that allowed anybody to approximate the taste of ramen at home using only boiling water. Taking cheap, quick, and filling to the extreme, instant ramen became a global phenomenon.
Although ramen has history stretching back over a century (seriously, there’s a ramen museum in Yokohama) and has been a cultural touchstone for the vast majority of the modern era, only relatively recently has the culture around American-Japanese food expanded to look toward foods other than sushi and sake. Just as our perception and acceptance of Chinese food has shifted from chow mein and General Tso's to encompass more traditional flavors and less Americanized dining experiences, we've begun looking past the famous face of Japan's rice and seafood culture and toward street food and pub food. Ramen is constructed every bit as delicately and deliberately as any other dish in Japanese cuisine, and, like any other culturally entrenched comfort food, hits a sweet spot capturing depth of flavor and hearty richness. What puts ramen above a Primanti's sandwich, a juicy burger, your grandmother's meatloaf, or buttermilk biscuits, though, is the time and dedication that goes into each of its many ingredients. Traditional tonkotsu (pork bone) broth alone takes a minimum of 12 hours, and the many toppings, ranging from roasted pork to seasoned soft-boiled eggs, require meticulous, advance preparation. Each bite and each bowl tastes like the time and care put into it, which makes ramen an incomparably warming and engaging eating experience.